The Preparation Nation

When most fencers and coaches analyze a touch, they look only at the final actions. This isn’t surprising as it’s the easiest element to understand (“Attack is parried, riposte arrives” is pretty clear) and, most importantly, it is how they’ve been trained to think about touches. Few fencers are trained to understand the relationship between touches and their preparation, and stronger fencers often only understand it implicitly thanks to experience.

It is not uncommon to see coaches conducting the following sequence of exercises with beginners during pairwork:

A executes thrust with lunge; B is hit in high-inside line.
A executes thrust with lunge; B parries and ripostes.
A executes feint disengage; B parries feint and is hit.

The problem with this sequence of exercises is that, if these are beginners, there’s no sense to trying to teach them feint yet, as they don’t actually know how to attack. (If fencers A and B are not beginners and actually know how to attack, this sequence has more value.) The lunge is only a small part of what makes an attack (or any action) successful. A beginning fencer could not learn that, if trained with this kind of sequence of exercises.

Students need to be taught the fundamental aspects of the game before everything else. The material must have a logical progression. This idea seems fairly obvious, though it is rarely adhered to. (To apply this idea to the example above: If a fencer does not know how to prepare, he cannot attack. If a fencer does not know how to attack, he cannot feint. Therefore, you cannot teach feint, if the attacker has not learned to prepare.)

Rather than adhering to a Tactical Wheel framework (I won’t recreate my criticism of the Tactical Wheel here, as it can still be found elsewhere) to guide him in choosing what to teach, a coach should be building his fencers skills foundationally. In other words, he should be isolating those skills and abilities that are fundamental to everything else in fencing and build up from there sequentially and logically.

To return to the example above, a better sequence might be:

A executes thrust with explosive lunge; B is hit in high-inside line.
A executes thrust with explosive lunge, attempting to hit before B is able to parry (B is not cheating: he is honestly trying to score with parry-riposte).
While maneuvering, A attempts to score with direct thrust with explosive lunge; B attempts to score with parry-riposte. A’s goal is to vary his preparation with each execution in order to surprise B. B’s goal is to control the movement in such a way to draw A’s attack as well as take advantage of mistakes in A’s preparation.

Of course, my example only works if the fencers already can competently execute explosive lunges, parries, etc. If they cannot yet do those things, this sequence of exercises would, naturally, be inappropriate (and a feint-attack exercise would be completely idiotic.) After all, students need to learn to execute a movement, before they learn to apply it.

Once the fencers have demonstrated competence preparing correctly and controlling movement, feint attack exercises may be added.

The feint-attack exercises are not then introduced with “Here’s what you do if you keep getting parried”?because the fencers already understand the fundamental element of attack and of avoiding a parry: good preparation. The feint attack is introduced as another means of controlling the opponent. So the feint then becomes a proactive tool of the fencer’s technique rather than a “patch” for poor preparation. (The feint, too, must then be taught with proper preparation.)

By teaching actions in the context of their preparation, the fencers learn how to actually apply their actions. Additionally, when a fencer has a real understanding of preparation, adding new actions becomes much easier as he is able to recognize the most fundamental factor of successful fencing: control.